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 Theater Review-Long Wharf Opens Strong With 'Guys And Dolls'



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 Theater Review—

Long Wharf Opens Strong With ‘Guys And Dolls’

                By Julie Stern

 Long Wharf Theatre wanted to open with something special this year, in part to celebrate its 40th year of operations, and perhaps also to boost its flagging attendance, which had begun to reflect several seasons of uninspired choices and bloody political infighting.

SO, its Associate Artistic Director Kim Rubenstein was given the challenge of staging her favorite musical, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls.

It happens to be my favorite as well, and over the years I’ve enjoyed it in at least a dozen venues, ranging from the 1950 Broadway original, to a Newtown High School Drama Club foray, and I have to say that hands down, this New Haven production is the best I’ve ever seen.

Much of it has to do with the interpretative choices that Ms Rubenstein made. Some of these were prompted by the theater’s structural limitations: Long Wharf is an intimate place with a relatively small stage that projects forward into the audience. Therefore, without cutting the play itself, she “essentialized” it by eliminating the chorus (so traditional to musicals) and whittling the cast down to a core of 13, many of whom play multiple roles (gamblers, dancers, chorus girls, and Salvation Army soldiers) as needed. Similarly, the orchestra has been condensed to a five-person combo, but they sit highly visible, to the left of the stage, rather than be hidden in a pit.

Further, she has chosen a starkly abstract set, consisting of a sunken triangle surrounded by raised tile that juts out toward the front. Since Long Wharf has always enjoyed a reputation for elaborately detailed realistic sets, some people have complained about this, but in fact it works beautifully on a number of levels. The zig-zagging image captures the “sharpness” of the Broadway gamblers and their dolls, and the raffish late night world they inhabit. The texture of the surfaces, seen in the pulsating lighting reflects like the rainwashed city pavement of the song “My Time of Day,” and scenic and costume designer G.W. Mercier has made up for the simplicity of the set with the dazzling colors and patterns of the outfits.

In addition, it provides a natural enclosure to suggest a variety of settings — a mission hall, a Cuban nightclub, a sewer. Bringing the entire cast together within that space amplifies the power and energy of the music — Loesser’s 17 incredibly wonderful songs, consisting of one audience favorite after another, from the opening “Fugue for Three Tinhorns” (“I’ve got a horse right here...” through “If I Were a Bell,” “My Time of Day,” “Take Back Your Mink.” “Luck Be A Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and so forth.

Still another Rubenstein decision, not connected to the theater’s physical specifications, was to use actors who are older than the usual pretty faces traditionally associated with musicals.

Based on characters from Damon Runyon’s stories, Guys and Dolls follows the romances of two pairs of lovers: Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide, and Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown.

Nathan is a fast-talking wise guy who operates a floating crap game, and has been staving off marriage to his nightclub singer-girl friend Adelaide for 14 years.

Needing a thousand dollars to secure a safe place to hold the crap game, Nathan makes a bet with the big time gambler Sky Masterton, that he (Sky) can’t get a girl to go to Havana with him. When Sky takes the bet, Nathan reveals that the girl he has chosen is Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown, the virginally prim and proper new director of the 49th Street Mission.

Sky in turn makes a deal with Sarah: if she goes to dinner with him, he will provide a load of genuine sinners for her next prayer meeting. And so it goes...

In many of the versions I’ve seen in recent years, the comic character of Adelaide is so strong and funny that her presence completely dominates the show, so that when Sarah comes on, everyone is in a hurry for her to get on with it so that Adelaide will come back.

The great thing about this production’s Sarah is that Crista Moore has a voice that can really belt out her numbers, as well as stage presence and acting ability to match. Thus she and Tia Speros, as the long-suffering Adelaide, balance each other perfectly.

Similarly, Ned Eisenberg makes Nathan a wistfully seedy little sharpie, while Dennis Parlato’s Sky Masterson, the traditional romantic lead, is smooth and handsome, but in an older, weather-beaten way as befits a guy who’s lived in so many hotel rooms that he’s read the entire Gideon Bible 12 times.

Other standouts include Richard Ruiz as Nicely Nicely, Nathan’s sweet tempered sidekick whose rendition of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat” drew such extended applause when I saw it that he was forced to stand up again and deliver an encore chorus, and William Ryall as Big Jule from Chicago, who brings his own dice when he comes to shoot craps.

In his program message, Long Wharf’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein asks the question: “Was there ever a moment when we as Americans more needed to be reminded of what is good about ourselves? Our mainstage this season is dedicated to work of healing, of making whole that which is broken.”

With all that’s wrong going on in the world today, Guys and Dolls really does offer a couple of hours of joy and merriment that we can all use. I hope this production goes on to New York, as so many of Long Wharf’s best shows do; perhaps they could do it in Lincoln Center.

For the rest of Long Wharf’s schedule this season, see LongWharf.org    

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